Michigan State University must release the names of suspects who are student athletes to ESPN, court rules

MICHIGAN — Sports network ESPN has won an appeal directing Michigan State University to release the redacted names of student athletes who were listed as suspects in police reports.

The ruling from the Michigan Court of Appeals, which was handed down on Tuesday, upheld the trial court’s decision that an exemption under the state Freedom of Information Act did not apply to the names of the suspects. Judges David H. Sawyer, Michael J. Kelly and Douglas B. Shapiro wrote the ruling for the appeals court.

“The disclosure of the names of the student-athletes who were identified as suspects in the report serves the public understanding of the operation of the university’s police department,” the judges wrote. “ESPN seeks the information to learn whether policing standards are consistent and uniform at a public institution of learning. The disclosure of names is necessary to this purpose.”

ESPN’s Outside the Lines has been investigating the relationships between high-profile college athletes who face criminal charges and law enforcement. In fall 2014, ESPN filed public-records requests to Michigan State and nine other colleges for police reports that involve football and men’s basketball players on rosters from 2009 to 2014.

Michigan State released the records but redacted the names and identifying information of the suspects, victims and witnesses, according to the ruling. In February, ESPN sued the university to obtain the names of the suspects, victims and witnesses. (ESPN is also suing the University of Notre Dame for not releasing records.)

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for ESPN said the network “is pleased with the appellate court’s decision to uphold the public’s right to open records, and we continue to report on this story.”

When denying the records, Michigan State had cited the state Freedom of Information Act’s exemptions for records “of a personal nature” that, upon disclosure, would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The trial court agreed that the privacy exemptions applied to the names and identifying information of the victims and witnesses — even if they were one of the 301 student athletes identified in ESPN’s request. But the court ordered Michigan State to disclose the names of the suspects if they were one of the student athletes in the request.

The ruling from the appeals court said that disclosure is necessary to determine whether student athletes were treated differently from any other student. The judges also wrote that ESPN needs the student athletes’ names to do further investigations.

“Consequently, even if revealing the names of the student-athletes in the context of the reports amounts to the revelation of information of a personal nature, that revelation is not unwarranted,” they wrote. “Under the circumstances, the public’s interest in government accountability must prevail ‘over an individual’s, or a group of individuals’, expectation of privacy.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Michigan State said the university “is aware of and is reviewing the decision before considering possible next steps.”

ESPN’s lawsuit against Notre Dame, which refused to release records because it is a private university and is not covered by Indiana’s public-records law, is still pending in appeals after a St. Joseph’s County Superior Court judge dismissed ESPN’s lawsuit in April.

On Aug. 13, Indiana Attorney General Gregory F. Zoeller filed a brief with the state Court of Appeals agreeing with ESPN’s argument that Notre Dame’s police should be covered by the state’s Access to Public Records Act to the same extent as city or county police because they carry state-delegated police authority, including the power to make arrests.

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.